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By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL218.PRB - The Soul of the Senate
In the last two weeks before their spring break, Missouri's Senate has been plagued by a Democratic filibuster I suspect most Missourians would find tedious, boring and irrelevant to their lives.
But at the heart of this grid lock is a challenge to an aspect of our government that goes back to ancient Rome.
Many of our founding fathers feared a pure democracy. To provide a protection against a government that trampled over minority views to pander to poplar demands, they replicated the legislative approach of the Roman Republic and the later British system by creating two competing legislative chambers.
In both ancient Rome and later in London, the general public (to a degree) was represented by a "lower chamber" -- Britain's Parliament and, initially, Rome's Comitia Curiata.
But each government also had a smaller upper chamber that could block what the people demanded -- Britain's House of Lords and Rome's Senate.
Their upper chambers were isolated from political pressures because membership came from the unelected nobility.
Our country, of course, does not respect nobility. Instead, the buffer against political pressures was established by making the Senate a smaller chamber with longer terms between elections -- and, for a while, by having U.S. senators chosen by state legislatures rather than by direct election.
With fewer members and longer terms, I found Missouri's Senate more civil and deliberative. It was a chamber where each member, regardless of party, enjoyed an institutional respect unlike that in the much larger House.
In contrast, the majority party of the House exercises near absolute control. There's a 15-minute limit on how long a member can talk. The majority party regularly votes to shut off debate.
In the Senate, there is no 15-minute clock on speaking. Instead, there is a strong tradition against a motion to shut off debate by any member.
That right to talk forever, helps force compromises.
The majority wants to get a vote on a bill. Minority party members avoided abusing the right of filibuster for fear it would lead the majority party to change the rules to make the Senate more like the House in which individual members have less power.
That is the delicate balance that represents the soul of the Senate I fear may have been broken this year.
I saw no real effort by Republicans to seek a compromise with Democrats on the measure to establish a constitutional right to discriminate against gay marriages.
In response, Democrats chose to block even procedural requests that effectively shut down the Senate for nearly two weeks.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, placed part of the blame on term limits.
"I do think term limits played into that...you don't have relationship with members serving ten to 20 years together and so you can go and strike a deal," Richardson said.
Good point. But another element is the growing ideological purity within both parties that has narrowed the opportunities for bi-partisan compromise.
When I first started covering the Missouri General Assembly, some Democrats were as conservative as many Republicans. Some Republicans held libertarian values that made them ideological partners with their Democratic colleagues on some issues.
But purity of party position has grown to the extent that Senate Republicans regularly meet in closed sessions to figure out their unified position. It's a reflection that party rather than policy defines how a member should vote that would have been unimaginable to the Senate I began to cover in the early 1970s.
Back then, senators openly debated their party differences in formal Senate sessions.
The first major Senate fight I covered was an income tax increase in which Democrats were leaders on both sides.
When those senators of old did meet in their offices to work out compromises, it would be with colleagues from both parties. And they hardly were secret sessions like today's party caucuses.
I should know, I sometimes sat in on those discussions.
That public, bipartisan collaboration is the soul of Missouri's Senate which I fear our state is in danger losing.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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